‘It’d be certain death’: After surviving years of war, Syrian Kurds now flee to Iraq fearing Assad’s draft

Bel Trew
Young refugee men say they fled Northern Syria fearing conscription they now live in a refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan: Bel Trew

The parents of the Kurdish-Syrian teenager had survived years of war but began to panic when they heard rumours military conscription teams were coming to town.

So, they paid a smuggler $200 and sent their oldest son, Mohamed, who was about to turn 18, from the border town of Kobani 350 km east to northern Iraq.

For most of the nine-year civil war, being drafted into the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had not been a concern for the inhabitants of the Kurdish-controlled north-east of the country.

That changed with the arrival of regime troops in October, marking the first time government forces had entered the area since the early part of the conflict.

Despite living through several previous battles including a recent Turkish cross-border incursion, it was only then that Mohamed’s parents forced him to leave for fear he might be deployed to deadly fronts across Syria.

With nothing but a few changes of clothes, the teenager sits huddled along the main dirt track that runs through Bardarash refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, home to 9000 people, nearly half of them minors.

“To be honest I had to run away because of the Syrian military not because of the fighting,” he says, explaining he arrived just 3 days ago.

“My parents sent me as they were concerned about me being signed up and where I would be posted in the war. There are a lot of us boys here like me. “

Mohamed made the five-hour cross-border trek with four other teenagers, all of whom were unaccompanied minors like him.

Around him a gaggle of young men talk in quiet tones about their fears of conscription in Syria and not finding work.

“We went from Kobani to Derek, and then walked for four hours across the border with the smugglers,” he continues.

“My family hope I can also work here and send back money. But I’m stuck in the camp and cannot get out.”

In October, Turkey sparked international uproar when it launched an offensive against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic forces who controlled swaths of northern Syria.

Ankara sees the Kurdish militias, which had been Washington’s chief ally in the fight against the Islamic State, as a terror group and justified its incursion saying it wanted to repel them from its borders.

Turkey and its allied Syrian rebel groups seized a strip of land inside Syria 120 km long and around 30 km wide running from the town of Ras al Ain (Sere Kaniye) to Tel Abyad but signed separate deals with the United States and Russia to halt its assault.

Fearing that the whole of northern Syria would be overrun, Kurdish forces simultaneously struck a deal with Damascus to dispatch regime troops to the border region to hold off an invasion.

It marked the first time since the early part of the civil war that Damascus had any hold over the area.

Over 19,000 refugees fled northern Syria for Iraq during these battles, according to the United Nations.

Staff within Bardarash refugee camp, which hosts most of the Syrian-Kurdish refugees, say they have witnessed a soaring number of young boys and men of conscription age arriving on their own after regime troops entered the area.

“We had a big surge of unaccompanied minors and young adults after October, some have sponsors and have been able to leave the camp, but many don’t so have to stay here,” says Khadija Agrab, from UNHR.

“It has dropped now, but people are still arriving. We had 43 arrive yesterday."

On the other side of sprawling camp, a group of new arrivals stand shell-shocked in front of the battered UN tents that have been assigned to them.

Having spent most of the night walking the border, exhausted and overwhelmed, they clutch their belongings to their chests like lifebuoys.

A veteran resident of the camp, who fled at the start of Turkey’s incursion and lives a few tents down with his wife, gently shows them how to undo the guide rope which holds shut the door flap.

“We heard there would be an agreement between the local Kurdish administration and the regime,” says Feras, 25, from Hassakah another Kurdish town which is now populated in some areas by regime forces.

“To go to the military is a huge problem, it’s certain death and you don’t know where they will be deployed”.

In the freezing winter air, the young couple visibly recoil at the tent that is now to be their home. In these surroundings, they say they have little hope for 2020.

“The situation in Hasakah just got worse and worse but we didn’t want to leave,” Feras adds.

“It was only because there are so many rumours that the regime is coming to take over. I promised my mother, that I would leave.”

A family a few rows across, who are from east of Sere Kaniye, another Kurdish town, have been displaced multiple times during Syria’s bloody war but only recently decided to flee Syria for Iraq.

They say they finally left because they feared their only son might be recruited by any of the three sides of the conflict: regime forces, Kurdish militias or Turkish-backed fighters.

They were so worried the day they fled they left their son, aged 16, behind initially, fearing that he would be captured at a checkpoint.

“We know all three forces need men, we were very afraid he would be taken so when the day came, we hid him at home until the smugglers’ details were sorted,” the mother, 42 says.

The biggest problem now is the lack of work in the camp. Under local regulations, refugees cannot leave unless they have close family based in Kurdistan who can sponsor them.

Most of those in the camp, including the unaccompanied youth of military age, have no relatives outside of Syria and so are stuck.

Some make a few Iraqi dinners, setting out tea and biscuits on plastic tables along the main dirt track road.

One young man has set up a barbershop in a smaller tent.

A couple who recently fled conscription in northern Syria stand outside the tent assigned to them (Bel Trew)

Other innovative businesses are cropping up, but most families say they do not have enough food or supplies to survive much longer.

“The situation is terrible here. We live seven people in this tent. We don’t have anyone to support us, so we are just waiting,” says Hana, 53 with her family.

“When we came here, we thought maybe Kurdistan will help but now we’re just sitting in a tent.”

There is little hope, meanwhile, of returning home.

With Turkey on one side, the regime on the other, Isis all around: only God can help.”

Mahmoud, 65 a Kurdish refugee

Although a ceasefire has reduced the intensity of the fighting, Kurdish families from towns along the border with Turkey fear the presence of Turkish troops who they accuse of trying to ethnically cleanse the area.

Turkey had vowed to resettle a million Syrian refugees in the “safe zone area” but many rights monitors and Kurdish groups say they will only resettle non-Kurdish Syrians altering the demographics.

For the Kurdish families this means they can ever return home.

“America sold us to Turkey after we shed so much blood and sacrificed all our men,” says Mahmoud, 65, who is living with his six children and grandchildren in one of the tents.

“In the end as Kurds we are in a big mire. With Turkey on one side, the regime on the other, Isis all around: only God can help.”

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